Yearning for Artistic Beauty and Sacred Space

Earlier this month, my family visited western North Carolina to spend some time with my dad and to enjoy the cooler temps and mountain scenery. Despite the fact that my husband and I both grew up in NC, neither of us had ever been to downtown Asheville, so we chose a hotel a few minutes from the area. Though most of our sightseeing involved mountain views and waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we made time to see some of the city, as well. At the top of my “To See” list was the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a century-old Roman Catholic church designed by one of the architects who contributed to the design of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate (largest residence in America).

This wasn’t my first time inside of a Roman Catholic church; I’ve attended Mass here in Houston, and I’ve toured stunning historic Catholic churches in Israel. Nevertheless, the few minutes I spent sitting in the back pew of Saint Lawrence’s were no less spiritually profound: the reverent silence; the stunning beauty; men and women kneeling in prayer amid flickering candles; the majestic crucifix suspended above the ornate altar; the sublimity of the domed ceiling. I let it all wash over me, realizing once again how much my soul longs for the experience of sacred space. Here are a couple of photos of the church’s interior. It features the largest self-supporting elliptical dome in North America:

Basilica

Basilica 2

These images don’t do it justice. It was breathtaking.

In the Protestant tradition, the statement is often made, “The church is not a building, it is a people.” I understand the point, and I realize that the material things of this world, including stones, bricks, and tiles, will pass away while the body of Christ endures. However, I have a deeply-held conviction that God values human artistry, and that design and craftsmanship are a vital form of worship and glorification of the Creator. As beings made in His image, we are unique among all other creatures in that we can reflect Him in our creative endeavors–visual arts, music, architecture. Contemplating the Basilica was an intensely worshipful experience, one that drew my mind to the transcendent. This is what objective beauty does, as the standard of the good, true, and beautiful is the very character of God himself.

I lament the utter lack of artistry in many Protestant church buildings. While some have architecture and interior design that is aesthetically pleasing (and practical), they typically do not visually convey a sense of the sacred, they do not inspire an elevation of the soul through unusual beauty. I subconsciously long for these things, and I know this to be so because of how strongly I am affected when I do experience a place like the Basilica.  I’m not saying that a building can have any mystical powers; I’m saying that consecrated spaces designed to reflect God’s majestic beauty as well as humanly possible fulfill a universal spiritual need. We long to be closer to His beauty, and sensory experiences give us glimpses of Him that are not achieved through other means.

In his book, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, Philip Ryken argues that “God is a great lover of beauty, as we can see from the collection of his work that hangs in the gallery of the universe. Form is as important to him as function.” Ryken discusses the exacting beauty of the Tabernacle, right down to the colorful embroidery on the priestly robes, in an effort to emphasize this. Obviously, aesthetic considerations were of the utmost importance, and artisans were selected and inspired by God Himself. The beauty conveyed the holiness of God. The best artistry, says Ryken, will “satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for his glory.” These were, to be sure, major goals of the Tabernacle structure.

After (reluctantly) exiting the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, my father, who is a Baptist minister, turned to me and asked: “Why don’t the Baptists build churches like this?” I think more and more American Evangelical Christians are awakening to this need and are making efforts to recover what has, to a great extent, been lost.

I encourage you to make a point of experiencing and contemplating human art and architecture that has been set apart and purposed to communicating the sacred. You may be surprised by how much it enhances your devotional life.

All This Sudden Outrage…So Where’s All the Training?

Since the expose’ of the horrific, gruesome practices going on behind the “pro-women” facade of Planned Parenthood, there has been more outcry from the church over the egregious injustice being done to unborn human beings than I can remember ever witnessing. In case you missed it, one of the sting videos released over the past week includes footage of a dead baby being dissected for its body parts, then the doctor calls it “another boy!” Absolutely chilling and gut-wrenching. Yes, we should be outraged.

The questions that keep going around and around in my mind are:

1. In light of the fact that 1 MILLION children per year are chemically burned, crushed,  and/or dismembered before being suctioned from their mother’s womb, why hasn’t there been this level of outrage all along? 2,700 babies a day, ladies and gentlemen. Many people don’t realize that in America, it is possible to get a legal abortion at any stage of pregnancy. A woman seeking a late-term abortion may have to travel to a specific state with the requisite abortion laws, but the fact remains that babies who would be viable outside of the womb can be legally killed within the womb in America. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 1.2% of abortions are performed after the 21st week of gestation. (The threshold of viability is usually said to be 23 weeks, but there have been some cases of younger preemies surviving.) This comes out to about 12,000 post-21-week abortions a year. That’s 33 babies a day.

2. Where is all the pro-life training? The most effective defense of the unborn is widespread education on the philosophical, bioethical, and theological issues that pervade this debate. Imagine the impact the church could have in this area if it were diligently working to equip believers with the intellectual tools required to be intelligent, articulate, pro-life voices in the public square. Moreover, it would likely reduce the number of professing Christians who identify as “pro-choice” (and there are a LOT). Why doesn’t every church in America offer and strongly encourage such training? There are excellent resources available; a great small-group study resource is The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture. Additionally, apologists with the ability to train others in sanctity of life issues can be booked for focused seminars or as part of general apologetics events (I happen to think all apologists should be trained in this area). Check out Life Training Institute for events and speakers working full-time for the pro-life cause.

Yes, we are deeply grieved over the inhumanity and injustice of this atrocity called abortion. Women and their babies deserve so much better! Let’s do something about it.

Dear Apologist…

Please note that the domain name for my blog has changed. If you use a bookmark instead of a subscription, please update it to either http://www.melissatravis.com or https://hcchristian.wordpress.com. 

This week marks the five year anniversary of my Coming Out as an Apologist, the day I posted my very first article here. I’ve been reflecting on all that has come to pass since that day, including the crucial lessons learned, some of which were learned the hard way (in some cases, that is an understatement). Five years doesn’t sound all that impressive when you consider how long many eminent thinkers in my field have been plowing ground, but I believe I have gained some wisdom worth sharing.

Here are three (okay maybe four) insights I wish someone had shared with me very early on.

1. An apologist’s most effective work is often done in small, humble settings (for free) rather than creatively-set stages in mega-church auditoriums. That local group study, where you form real relationships with a few devoted learners who are thirsty for the knowledge you have to impart; that spontaneous, tough question from one of your kids while  you’re driving all over town running errands; that coffee with a longtime friend who is struggling with fear and doubt. These appointments matter, and they matter much more than you know. A “sage on a stage” can do marvelous work for the kingdom, to be sure; but all too often, apologists (particularly emerging ones) make the mistake of gauging their fruitfulness by the number (or lack thereof) of public teaching/speaking invitations they receive or by-lines they have accumulated. This is terribly misguided. Always be ministering, in whatever setting entrusted to you; be joyful and thankful for even the smallest opportunity to use your giftedness. This demonstrates obedience and faith in God to open just the right windows of opportunity when you are sharpened sufficiently and your heart is prepared. My prayer is always “Here I am, Lord, send me!” but I have no place being finicky about where that happens to be.

hurricane_eye2. Do not underestimate the ripple effect of your work, but realize that  you may not see past the first few ripples in this lifetime. Think of the butterfly effect theory. Every action taken in faithfulness reverberates outward and forward as time goes on, in ways we cannot imagine. Treat every ministry moment as if it is the most important of your life! One summer, while teaching a study at my church, I had a conversation with a grandmother concerned by the fact that her unbelieving son (a former believer) and daughter-in-law were raising their kids in a godless home. The grandmother had never studied apologetics herself (a fact she deeply regretted), and asked me to recommend a book to help her talk with her grandkids, who were coming to visit for the summer. I completely forgot about the conversation until one day, months later, she approached me at church to tell me that her granddaughter had become a believer, after spying the book at her grandmother’s house and reading it without prompting. Think about that. All I did was suggest a book title. Only God knows the full impact that one short conversation will turn out to have.

3. Be knowledgeable about the work being done by others in (or coming into) the field, and be willing to promote quality work as often as you are able. My personal practice is to plug the notable work of others at every opportunity, whether it’s previewing a book and offering an endorsement, blogging about a great new resource, or writing social media blurbs about them. Of course, promoting your own work is necessary, but when we exhibit Christian charity towards our co-laborers by drawing deserved attention to their unique ministries, we are building each other up and furthering the mission of apologetics most effectively by making a broader range of resources better known. (I’m very excited about two upcoming books that I’ll be blogging about in the near future: One of the Few by Jason Ladd and Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain.)

4. Do not neglect your own spiritual formation. It is the most important part of equipping yourself for effective ministry. Seek to continually improve the quality of your prayer life and your study time. Be worshipful in both. Mind your moral compass diligently. As Douglas Groothuis has so beautifully put it, “Christian defenders need to know the arguments of apologetics, but they must also find their moral bearings to bear the truth nobly…Rather than packaging and selling an image, the apologist should build his ministry on integrity, service, repentance, and prayer.” (Christian Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2)

There you have it. Go forth and prosper.

Is Design Dead?

So I said to the teacher,

“Please consider design.”

He said, “We haven’t had that thesis here since 1859.”

(Weird Al, are you listening?)

1859 was the year Charles Darwin published his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book is included in the Great Books of the Western World canon, and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written and thoughtful piece of natural philosophy. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. Consider the poetic language of this passage:

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. 

Origin, Chapter 4

I find it remarkable that the majority of folks who recite the “design is dead, Darwin killed it” mantra haven’t actually read Darwin; they’ve only read popular (sometimes weirdly slanted) articles or books about Darwin’s work, or heard agenda-driven pop-atheists sing Darwinian praises. I find it all rather strange. How do they know Darwin killed design? How did he do it? These are key questions to ask the design opponent.

Darwin’s scientific work actually did little to nothing to discredit design, properly defined. His philosophical goal (which he makes clear in the Origin) was indeed to demonstrate that there is no need to postulate a Creator to explain the diversity and complexity of living things. He fell prey to the same mistake in thinking we see today: the belief that scientifically elucidating natural history and the workings of the natural mechanism (allegedly) behind it somehow rules out a designer of both the mechanism and the resulting organisms. In other words, thinking that the physical cause of something automatically eliminates the possibility that purpose and intention were involved. But how does that follow? No amount of scientific advancement could ever demonstrate this, because it lies in the realm of metaphysics–it goes beyond the physical.

One of my favorite early modern philosophers, Thomas Reid, made this point nearly a century before Darwin published the Origin:

A Physical cause is different from a final cause. The physical cause hunts out the laws of Nature from which the phenomena flow…but the final cause again hunts out the end which Nature had in view.

Lectures on Natural Theology, 1780

(Reid was a devout Christian, and his use of the term “Nature” is thoroughly design-oriented, not merely personified. He had insightful things to say about laws needing a law-giver, mechanisms needing an ultimate first cause, and the foresight apparent in the natural world.)

Today’s design advocate may rightfully claim that Darwin’s philosophy failed miserably, but they don’t have to challenge his scientific theory (common descent driven by natural selection) in order to defend their own position. Note: this is not to say that the Darwinian view of biological history and evolutionary change doesn’t have scientific weaknesses. What I’m getting at is that a defense of design doesn’t rely upon pointing out the shortcomings of evolutionary theory. 

Then what, exactly, is the design advocate’s mission? It is an integrated project of science and philosophy; an examination of the features of the natural world and the use of that data to support premises of philosophical arguments. Here are a couple of examples of how this works. The first one is completely irrelevant to Darwinism, as it deals with the origin of the universe itself. I include it to emphasize how broadly design theory should be defined. The second example is related to evolutionary biology, and it demonstrates that biological design theory doesn’t depend upon Darwin’s science being wrong.

1. It is an undisputed scientific fact that the laws and constants of the universe exhibit a stunning level of fine-tuning, such that even minute differences would have prevented the possibility of any life at all in the cosmos. No stars, no planets, no chemistry. The statistical odds of this finely-tuned state occurring by blind chance are effectively zero. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that there was intelligent, conscious governance of the physical event by which the cosmos came into existence.

2. Biochemistry has revealed that the genetic code far exceeds the complexity and multi-level integration of any manmade code ever produced. Think of our most advanced computer software—it’s utterly stone age compared to the genetic code. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that this type of intricacy and level of functionality strongly suggest behind-the-scenes intelligent engineering. Note that this claim has nothing to do with Darwinian common descent, and it doesn’t rule out Natural selection as a mechanism. The opponent of design will respond that the mechanism driving “descent with modification” is blind and autonomous, but this too is a philosophical claim. At the end of the day, the physical evidence is all we have scientific access to.

I’ve greatly simplified the above arguments; many sophisticated versions of these are used and many counter-arguments have been made. But I wanted you to get the gist of exactly what the real issue is.

In the project of scientific apologetics, I believe the best and wisest approach is to take Darwin off the table altogether but be able to explain why his scientific theory is extraneous to the discussion. This allows you to find a common ground starting point in your conversations. Otherwise, you and your interlocutor will end up talking past one another and/or missing the true core of the dispute.

 

An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

Atheist conversions stories, particularly those involving highly credentialed intellectuals (so-called “unlikely converts”) who have found the evidence for Christianity sufficiently compelling, sometimes give the impression that the project of apologetics is limited to articulating the classical arguments for Christianity’s assertions. To the contrary, there is a growing and dynamic sub-discipline known as “cultural apologetics” that capitalizes upon the truth, beauty, and goodness found in great works of literature, fine art, and film in an effort to bridge the intellect with the powerful inner longings and intuitions we experience as human beings. In other words, while evidential and logical arguments cater to our rationality, cultural apologetics appeals to the imagination. In her conversion memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, English scholar and cultural apologist, Dr. Holly Ordway, winsomely relates the critical roles both imaginative literature and classical apologetics played in her journey to faith. The result is a testimony that offers sharp insights about the importance and effectiveness of a well-rounded approach to evangelism.

From the outset of her story, Ordway leaves no room for doubting her former atheistic convictions: “I was an atheist college professor, and I delighted in thinking of myself that way…I thought ‘faith’ was a meaningless word, that so-called believers were either hypocrites or self-deluded fools…I was not looking for God. Make no mistake; I did not believe he existed. I did not even wonder.” This worldview was not explicitly instilled in her by her upbringing, which she describes as nonreligious but not antagonistic towards the faith. It wouldn’t be until her years in graduate school that her atheism would crystallize, due in part to a lack of exposure to the philosophical and historical grounds for taking Christianity seriously and negative experiences with misguided Christians.

Yet, with the clarity of illuminated hindsight, Ordway recognizes the unbroken, scarlet thread of grace woven into her life, tracing it back to an early and well-cultivated love of good literature. Mythology and fantasy were her particular favorites, and certain works sowed seeds in her soul that remained dormant for many years, but later bore abundant fruit. “[A]t some point in my childhood,” she writes, “I found J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately…Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with a Christian vision.” In college, it would be poetry that planted more seeds, especially the verses of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her heart exulted in the beauty and profundity of Hopkins’ poems, “But,” Ordway laments, “I didn’t know I’d found something real; I let it slip through my fingers.” The thread held strong through the ensuing years, even as Ordway’s aversion to Christianity was intensifying. Paradoxically, she chose The Lord of the Rings as the centerpiece of her doctoral dissertation, a work that, providentially, underscored truths quite at odds with her atheism: “The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the evangelium, the good news. I didn’t know, then, that my imagination had been, as it were, baptized in Middle-earth.”

It was during her undergraduate college years that Ordway had taken up the sport of fencing—something that, in more ways than one, would become a monumental part of her journey. Fencing held romantic appeal for a young woman who loved stories of sword-wielding heroes (and heroines), and it served as a gleaming link between her imaginative and “real life” experience. After completing her doctoral work, she relocated to the West Coast, but continued fencing competitively while working as a professor of English. It was at her new fencing club that she came under the instruction of a well-educated, thoughtful coach—who also happened to be a gifted Christian apologist. Ordway recounts the admiration and respect she developed for him as both her teacher and her friend; a genuine trust was established that, combined with a shared fondness for Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, spawned a series of philosophical conversations about the existence of God. Over the course of several months, her coach would patiently answer her questions and lend her scholarly books to consider. Eventually, her intellectual stumbling blocks crumbled, and her rationality and imagination finally and fully coalesced. She tentatively embraced theism and soon after, full-fledged Christianity. But her journey would take another important turn years later, this time to the Roman Catholic Church, where she found her true home.

The philosophical arguments that served as a catalyst in Ordway’s assent to theism and the evidence that subsequently convinced her of the reality of the risen Christ are presented with clarity and purpose—that the reader may understand and appreciate the intellectual dimension of her journey. Ordway’s candidness about the contrast between her coach’s wise and charitable approach to communicating the Gospel and that of Christians she had previously encountered is highly instructive: “[He and his wife] offered no Bible quotes. No sharing of how God had worked in their lives. No appeal to my happiness or peace of mind. What, then? Philosophy. Ideas. Dialogue.” Something else that stands out is Ordway’s unapologetic acknowledgement that major elements of her change of heart were, by nature, subjective. Logic and the evidence were integral, but it was her human longings, her inner imaginative life, and the meaning and truth she discerned—often unconsciously—in great literature that had long been preparing her soul to receive the Source of all truth. She demonstrates that man’s existential intuitions and desires are vitally important, and this should make a difference in the project of Christian apologetics.

Ordway’s story is much more than a conversion account; it is a poignant image of Christ’s love and grace, of God’s desire to draw lost men unto himself. Even during the darkest days of her atheism God was doing a secret work in her soul through literature. Moreover, Ordway is a brilliant writer; she powerfully articulates both the bleakness of the godless condition and the magnificence of communion with Christ. The inclusion of key quotations from the works of scholars who were central to her investigation—most notably Gerard Manly Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright—lend a special richness to the reading experience. At times, Ordway’s own words spring up and nearly knock the breath from you with their simple, raw beauty. Remembering her years spent as a steadfast atheist, she says, “I had locked myself into my fortress and flung away the key. But even a fortress may have windows; and over it is the sky; and its stones rest on the good earth…” And in describing her first conscious experience of the presence of God she writes, “Everything felt sharp-edged, preternaturally clear; as if the very rocks and trees and sky were poised to reveal some meaning beyond themselves. I felt the presence of something…Someone…that was within me, yet outside or beyond myself. With a feeling something like dread, and certainly like fear, I recognized what it was: an experience of the Other.”

Not God’s Type is a true delight; it is at once spiritually edifying, thoughtful, and erudite. Proponents of classical liberal arts education should celebrate it as a modern testament of the spiritual potency of experiencing God’s truth through great literature. Christian readers will gain essential insight on being intelligent, wise, and benevolent representatives of Christ in their interpersonal interactions with antagonists of the faith. Non-believers will find that the book is never overbearing or preachy; perhaps they will come away with a more accurate understanding of the rational underpinnings of Christianity (it is not, after all, a blind faith), fewer misconceptions about believers, and heightened awareness of the ultimate ramifications of atheism.

This review appears in the Spring 2015 edition of Journal of Faith and the Academy.

Christian Parenting and Education Decisions

Are you struggling to make a decision about your children’s education? Have you been pondering whether or not a change in education method would be wise? If so, this post is for you (but everyone else is welcome to stay, too :-) ).

In my suburban community, I frequently encounter parents (particularly mothers) who exhibit a high degree of concern and awareness about nutrition, exercise, and natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals. They read stacks of books, numerous articles, and follow various blogs on these topics. They even host or attend classes on how to treat common ailments with diet changes, vitamin supplements, and/or plant-based remedies. I enjoy gleaning tips from them and I commend them for acting in accordance with what they’ve determined–through acquisition of knowledge–to be a more physically healthful lifestyle for themselves and their families. The chain of reasoning seems to be:

1. Physical health is of high importance.

2. A lifestyle conducive to excellent health, to the best of my knowledge, includes X, Y, and Z.

3. Therefore, I should do X, Y, and Z.

But what if someone were to say, “Well, I don’t know if good nutrition and exercise is God’s will for me and my family. I’ll have to pray for His direction about that. His plan is different for everyone.”  That sounds utterly absurd, doesn’t it? Of course we should take the best care of the bodies we’ve been given and help our families to follow suit; in this we honor our Creator and reap the wellness benefits.

This is why I am deeply puzzled when someone makes a statement like this concerning a decision about their children’s education. After all, education is instrumental in the health of the soul. If one believes that we are creatures made up of body and soul, and that the state of the soul has eternal ramifications, then soul-health should be our highest priority.

Please hear me: I recognize that having more than one education option is a luxury not everyone has. The point I want to make here is that when it comes to making a decision about a child’s education, when there is more than one option available, the decision to live a healthful lifestyle can be used as an analogy for the education decision-making process.  

I think the chain of reasoning can be similarly formulated this way:

1. The health of the soul is of highest importance.

2. The education one receives (academic, spiritual, practical) directly impacts the health of the soul.

3. The education that best edifies the soul, to the best of my knowledge, includes components X, Y, and Z.

4. Therefore, the best education choice is the option that includes X, Y, and Z..

For Christians, #1 and #2 above should be foregone conclusions. Education instills within a person’s soul ideas about goodness and objective truth. Number 3 is the premise that requires parents to investigate and ask serious questions. What elements of an education provide edification of the soul?

I’ve thought long and hard and researched quite a bit concerning this question, and though I do not claim to be an authority on Christian philosophy of education, I feel confident in some of the conclusions I’ve reached.

  • All truth is God’s truth. Full integration of the academic disciplines with higher truth principles ultimately models what Christians claim to believe about reality. Artificial compartmentalization of the secular and the sacred can undermine (evidence implies it does undermine) the rightful goal of instilling a robust worldview into our children. Those with a strong academic/inquisitive bent will be more affected by such a split, I believe.
  • Regular opportunities to learn in community with peers provide an unparalleled stimulus for critical thinking and learning to extend respect and grace to those with whom one may disagree.
  • The value of conversational learning cannot be overestimated. Spontaneous discussions that arise during a lesson of any kind are incredibly effective teaching opportunities. I say this based on experience as a home educator, Sunday school teacher, and college professor. An emotionally safe environment that fosters lots of conversational learning, with no questions being off-limits, is the ideal.
  • The most effective education is tailored to the individual student’s learning style, limitations, and personality.

If these are my informed conclusions about specific elements of an education that promotes the health of the soul, then I can move on to step #4 (see above). What I’ve done here is combine biblical principles with basic logic. As I act according to my conclusion, I continually pray for guidance concerning the particulars of carrying out my chosen model of education and ongoing insights about #3. I would like to note that I do not believe homeschooling is the only viable candidate.

It is my view that, when it comes to making certain kinds of decisions, a method applies. We can (and so should) use known biblical principles, our God-given rationality, and our research capabilities. Most would say this is true for making decisions about our physical health, and that we don’t have to wait for special divine direction on whether or not good health should be a priority in our lives. I believe this method also beautifully applies to making choices about soul health, and above all else, education should be about the well-being and improvement of the soul.

Postscript: For parents who only have one, perhaps less-than-ideal education option open to them, I believe the principles I’ve highlighted above could be used as a guide for helping to shape their children’s intellectual development through supplementary learning activities. 

Free Will: The Soul is the Sole Option

In my previous post, “The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience,” I discussed one of the logical difficulties that plague physicalism’s claim that we are our brains and nothing more. I now wish to turn to what I believe is an intractable problem for those who deny the existence of the immaterial soul: the impossibility of free will.*

Remember that in the materialist/physicalist picture of the world, there exists nothing other than matter in motion, so there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The direct implication of this is that every single neurochemical event in our brains must be the result of the neurochemical event that preceded it. Essentially, our thought processes are nothing but chemical chain reactions subject to physical environmental influences. All of our beliefs, desires, emotions, and actions are inevitable and can be comprehensively explained at the molecular level. We cannot really make conscious decisions and we cannot take voluntary actions. We feel as if we do these things with freedom, but that “freedom” is only illusory. Sure, we are conscious that we act according to a desire, but that desire is nothing more than the chemical step preceding the one that produces the related thought or action.550px-Draw-a-Brain-Step-20

In a nutshell: physicalism entails determinism and determinism eliminates any possibility of true free will; you are an organic machine running on chemical software.

In sharp contrast, the substance dualist holds that there is an immaterial soul that serves as the seat of cognition and free will. While all thought and action involves neurochemical activity, the soul is the “self” that transcends brain function and can direct some of this activity. The soul acts as an operator of sorts, one that can freely choose rational and physical actions. For example, I can choose to examine the evidence related to the existence of God, systematically apply the laws of logic to the information I have, and then choose my conclusion accordingly. But if there is no “I” to which my neurochemistry is subordinate, then my conclusion was the outcome of a chain reaction over which I had no control.

Think of the implications here. If physicalism is true, we can’t justify holding anyone accountable for their actions, because humans don’t really have free choice in anything. It would be like prosecuting a machine for doing what its programming predetermined it to do. Furthermore, the physicalist cannot claim that they reached their view by thinking through the evidence in a rational manner, because such a process would involve the ability to deliberate with total freedom. No freedom, no rationality. What a dilemma.

Isn’t it funny, then, that so many physicalists write books trying to convince others of their viewpoint? If their viewpoint is correct, no one can intentionally choose to believe it. Wouldn’t that make those book-writing efforts utterly futile? ;-)

Prager University has a fantastic short video that explains the relationship between the soul, free will, and rationality. Enjoy!

*By “free will,” I mean libertarian free will.