Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A personal universe

What is the right understanding of reality and the universe?

Introducing Naturalism

Amongst those who've made a serious effort to think through their assumptions about reality, many in the modern west hold to the system of naturalism. Naturalists seek to explain all of reality in terms of matter and the physical forces, or interactions, between matter. They treat the physical universe as a closed, self-contained and self-sufficient system. Everything must ultimately be explained in terms of physical laws. Naturalism seeks to rule out any kind of idea of a divine mind behind the universe, or a divine will active in it. Naturalism seeks to remove the category of the "transcendent" from reality - ultimately, all is matter and there is nothing beyond it.

Naturalism Expressed

In biology, naturalism is expressed in the theory of Darwinism, which seeks to explain all of life's complexity by the mechanism of natural selection working upon random mutations. In pyschology, naturalism seeks to reduce all of human behaviour to the chemistry of the human brain. In theology, naturalism seeks to empty the Bible of the concepts of divine revelation, human fallenness and a gracious Saviour, and reduce it to a helpful ethical message about how to live a good life. And so on. Naturalism is a powerful, even dominant, force in many areas of study in our time.

Naturalism And Personality

One of the immense problems that naturalists have not yet approached any kind of coherent explanation for is the problem of personality.

We live in a personal universe. Beyond the molecules, cells and systems which are present in your body, there is a you which transcends them all. Almost every cell in your body is replaced within seven years - yet there is still a you which continues on throughout your whole lifetime. I am not a different being from the one I was as a little boy - even though there's hardly a molecule shared between me now and there. You are a personal, self-conscious, thinking being. You think thoughts, you weigh up moral decisions, you consider ideas - and you can do all of those things without being determined by your genes. The thoughts that go on in my childrens' heads are not pre-determined by the genes that mum and dad gave them. We might both love classical music; they will be free to decide that it's boring if they choose.

Our awareness of our own self-consciousness and of the reality of our existence as personal beings is summed up most simply, most memorably and most famously in philosopher Rene Decartes' dictum: Cogito, ergo sum. Or in English: "I think; therefore, I am".

Decartes had the aim to how much he could deduce from a position of radical skepticism. He aimed to drop every assumption and pre-conception about reality, and simply deduce what he could from the naked act of thinking. His celebrated first deduction was that since he was sure that he was partaking in the act of thinking, he must exist. There was a distinct, personal being chewing the cud.

To sum up what we've discussed here: Our awareness of the reality of the university as being personal - that we have individualities which transcend the physical - is one of the deepest, most fundamental facts about our existence.


At this point, naturalism is utterly stumped. How can a lump of flesh generate self-consciousness? The concept of self-consciousness transcends the categories of naturalism - naturalism has no place for an I or a you. Naturalism has to explain how, somehow, the bone material of my skull is not self-conscious and yet the lump of brain tissue contained in that skull is!

Stories about how a physical world could develop out of nothing can be made to sound plausible. (How plausible they sound after you've thought about them a little is another matter). We can all, in our heads, at least picture the idea of fish turning into amphibians, and then into mammals, apes and then people. It strikes us as at least being worthy of discussing. It's quite another thing, however, to try to cook up a story about how there can be an I and a you.

In other words, naturalism is completely up the creek when it comes to explaining one of the most basic facts about reality. The evidence of personality as a basic and transcendent category in the universe we live in points very definitely not to an impersonal reality behind the university. It testifies clearly to a vast Personality who is behind it all.

In other words:

I think; therefore God is.

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