July 11, 2018


Secular Materialism Can't Make Sense of Reality (Justin Dyer, July 10th, 2018, Public Discourse)

Setting aside whether the concept of good is meaningful in this context, let us note that the problem was acknowledged in Western theology and jurisprudence before neuroscientists began studying the brain. Biblical commentators, for example, have long interpreted one of the consequences of the fall of man to be humanity's tendency to elevate material reality as the ultimate or highest source of meaning. As R.R. Reno writes in his recent commentary on Genesis, synthesizing the insights of classical Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant interpreters, "When the eye of the soul becomes carnal, taking the physical and finite as the measure of all things, the testimony of creation awakens a sense of shame. We know ourselves pursuing a futile life-project--even as we commit ourselves to its futility." Smilansky and others, of course, might see this tradition as useful nonsense. Tabling that question, we can say that people have long been aware of the disheartening implications of a worldview that makes the physical and finite the measure of all things, and it arguably is our deep longing for the infinite and immortal that leads us to be disheartened.

In light of this unease, and the disparity between materialism and experiential reality, the practical question for us today is what it would take for the people who control the key institutions in our society to embrace the old idea that we are rational animals capable of making decisions fraught with moral consequence. So long as our choices are entirely determined by physical causes, however, freedom is an illusion. If freedom is an illusion, then nothing is right or wrong, since unavoidable necessity is not a moral category. The practical stakes for how we answer these abstract questions are high. In one of his best and most reflective essays on this topic, Lewis observed:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

Lewis's observation does not mean the natural law exists (although he of course thought it did). His narrower point is that the idea of natural law is essential to the idea of freedom, because, as he wrote elsewhere, it provides the foundation of "a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

In the modern world, some have been tempted to dispense with the metaphysical baggage of the natural-law tradition, but without metaphysics we are left simply with physics, and physics is about power, leverage, and force. If power is all there is, then everything is about power, including the arguments we engage in as academics. The alternative to reason is strength: it has always been the alternative. In the reigning worldview of many intellectuals, material nature in an endless chain of cause-and-effect necessitates all human action. The strong rule, as must be the case, but strong can also mean clever, if cleverness helps one gain power. For this reason, many academics see law and public discourse as little more than linguistic power struggles, necessitated in advance by the course of matter.

It is a grim worldview that cannot give a coherent account of many of the fundamental concepts at the base of our law and politics, and cannot account for our actual lived experiences in the world. "Everyone knows," as the late Peter Lawler wrote, "that physics can't explain the physicist." Physics, by itself, simply explains away the physicist--and much else. The older theological and metaphysical view gave us two basic things that so far we have not been able to recover: a confidence in practical reason and a belief in freedom. Both grew out of a deeper philosophical anthropology that understood human beings as rational animals unique in their capacity to deliberate about the standards of justice rooted in human nature.

Materialists give away the game when they complain if you punch them in the face.

Posted by at July 11, 2018 4:01 AM