The Case for a Creator: Science by Armchair

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

Science is hard work. Normally, to make any significant contribution to human knowledge, a scientist really has to get their hands dirty – experiments in the lab, research in the field, long days and longer nights, and the meticulous testing of hypotheses. But J.P. Moreland must be an especially brilliant scientist, because he doesn’t even need any of those trappings. In this chapter, Strobel interviews him not in a lab or an office, but at his own home:

When I pulled up to J.P. Moreland’s house on a cool and foggy morning, he was outside with a cup of coffee in his hand, having just walked home from a chat with some neighbors. His graying hair was close-cropped, his mustache neatly trimmed, and he was looking natty in a red tie, blue shirt, and dark slacks.
    “Good to see you again,” he said as we shook hands. “Come on in.”
    We walked into his living room, where he settled into a floral-patterned chair and I eased onto an adjacent couch. [p.252]

I quote this passage not just to point out how cringingly bad Strobel’s writing is, but to call attention to the setting of this interview. For in this chapter, Moreland claims to prove the existence of the soul – certainly a Nobel-worthy result! – without once doing an experiment, running any sort of test, or even leaving his floral-patterned armchair.

“…if physicalism is true, then consciousness doesn’t really exist, because there would be no such thing as conscious states that must be described from a first-person point of view… if everything were matter, then you could capture the entire universe on a graph – you could locate each star, the moon, every mountain, Lee Strobel’s brain, Lee Strobel’s kidneys, and so forth. That’s because if everything is physical, it could be described entirely from a third-person point of view. And yet we know that we have first-person, subjective points of view – so physicalism can’t be true.” [p.255]

Look, I realize there probably aren’t many philosophical materialists on staff at the Talbot School of Theology, where Moreland teaches. I appreciate that this makes it slightly more difficult to do research for this interview. But really, would it have killed him to at least try to find out what we actually think?

I don’t know where Moreland got the odd fantasy that materialists are committed to denying anything that can’t be found on a map. Materialists believe in many things that have no physical location. I can name a few: justice, music, erosion, mathematics. What we really assert is not that there are no such things as abstract concepts, but that there are no abstract concepts that are not ultimately reducible to patterns of matter and energy. We deny that these concepts exist in their own right, independently of whatever arrangements of matter and energy happen to instantiate them at particular times and places. Just so with consciousness: it exists, but only as the product of brains. (This is the same thing I said in my Statement of Principles.)

“Nothing in my brain is about anything. You can’t open up my head and say, ‘You see this electrical pattern in the left hemisphere of J.P. Moreland’s brain? That’s about the Bears.’ Your brain states aren’t about anything, but some of my mental states are. So they’re different.” [p.259]

This argument, which Moreland apparently makes in all seriousness, betrays such an elementary confusion of terms that I scarcely even know where to begin. The whole point of science is that it’s about reductionism: explaining the properties of a complex phenomenon in terms of simpler components, which come together to create that property but don’t possess it themselves. A cloud of gas has the property of temperature, but the individual atoms that make up that cloud do not. That doesn’t mean that the gas and the atoms aren’t the same.

Or, for an example that hits even closer to home: a book. A book is about something, it contains thoughts, ideas; but the ink and paper that make up a book aren’t about anything. (This is true even if no human being ever reads the book, so it can’t be said that the meaning of the book exists only in the reader’s mind.) Does that mean that books have souls, to contain the ideas that inhabit them?

This simple concept is one that Moreland apparently doesn’t grasp. It should be obvious that, if we materialists are correct, the electrical pattern in your brain is the thought. The two are one and the same, just described at different levels of organization. Moreland is trying to turn a basic confusion of definitions into a sweeping conclusion about the nature of ultimate reality. A philosopher as renowned as Strobel describes him to be has no excuse for not understanding why this is fallacious.

“[If scientists believe that mind emerges from material processes] they are no longer treating matter as atheists and naturalists treat matter – namely, as brute stuff that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics. Now they’re attributing spooky, soulish, or mental potentials to matter… They’re saying that prior to this level of complexity, matter contained the potential for mind to emerge… That is no longer naturalism,” he said. “It’s panpsychism…. the view that matter is not just inert physical stuff, but that it also contains proto-mental states in it. Suddenly, they’ve abandoned a strict scientific view of matter and adopted a view that’s closer to theism than atheism.” [p.264-5]

Again, Moreland has some bizarre notions about what materialists believe (and if I were feeling unkind, I’d say that he’s the only one here for whom “proto-mental states” are in evidence).

Atheists believe that the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. This isn’t panpsychism – it simply means that matter arranged in certain ways has causal powers that matter arranged in other ways doesn’t have. You can build a car out of metal, but that doesn’t mean that metal had an ethereal notion of “transportation” inherent in it from the beginning. It just means that a set of atoms arranged car-wise produces an object which has certain causal powers that other arrangements of atoms don’t have. Similarly, the mind arises from an arrangement of matter arranged so as to possess a sufficient degree of information-processing power.

“If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn’t a far greater mind – God – emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness? You see, they want to stop the process where they want it to stop – at themselves – but you can’t logically draw that line. How can they know that a very large God hasn’t emerged from matter…?” [p.265]

Okay, and what’s the evidence that this has happened?

As with the other sections of this chapter, Moreland mistakes armchair speculation for argument backed by evidence. The mere hypothetical possibility of a god emerging from matter is held to be “a problem for atheists”. (Lest you think this represents a daring flirtation with unorthodoxy, Strobel immediately emphasizes that this “wouldn’t be the God of Christianity”, once again making it clear who his intended audience is.)

In fact, at no point in this chapter does Moreland get out of that armchair. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a book about science, he acts as if philosophical arguments and thought experiments are all the proof he needs. Given that this is Strobel’s last interview, you’d think he’d want to go out with a bang – but whimpers are all he has to offer.

UPDATE: As Siamang points out in the comments, Strobel declared in an earlier chapter that:

“I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them.” [p.95]

Yet this entire chapter consists solely of “unsupported conjecture” and “armchair musings”. Did Strobel think no one would notice, or is it just that his “interests” have changed now that he’s reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find Christian fundamentalists with scientific credentials?

Other posts in this series:

Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings
When Would You Rather Be Alive?
Weekend Coffee: March 28
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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