Mankind: Mind Over Matter or Mindful Matter?

After the question, “Does God exist?” the next most important question a human being can ask is:

“What am I?”

According to the view known as physicalsim, a human being is identical with the material stuff of their bodies. In other words, we are our bodies and nothing more; we are self-aware, animated meat inevitably destined to become dead meat.

The competing view (which I hold), substance dualism, says that man is more than the material sum of his parts. His personal identity is grounded in an immaterial entity commonly referred to as the mind or the soul, which has an interactive relationship with the physical body/brain.

Famous philosophers of the Early Modern/Enlightenment era recognized the centrality of the soul question and some of the major implications of each view. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the brilliant mathematician and Father of Modern Philosophy, said that if our nature is no different from that of other living things, then “after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and the ants” (Discourse on Method, V). In other words, if we do not have souls that survive the death of our bodies, our existence ends at death, just like that of insects. Descartes was a Christian who strongly endorsed dualism (you may be familiar with the label “Cartesian dualism”).

A contemporary of Descartes’, another renowned mathematician/philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) also stressed the importance of the soul question: “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is…our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject” (Pensees, III.194). He, too, was a dualist and a Christian.

BrainContrary to what you may be thinking, not every Christian theist is a substance dualist; there are some who believe that we are nothing more than our bodies, that our minds are the sum total of our brain activity, and that we will cease to exist at death. Proponents of this materialist view maintain belief in an afterlife by postulating that the resurrection of believers at the end of all things will involve our reconstitution, complete with our same consciousness and memories. I make note of this alternative view because it nullifies the fallacious accusation, “You’re only a substance dualist because you’re a Christian.” In fact, I hold the substance dualism view because I believe it has far more explanatory power and logical coherence than physicalism. It makes better sense of what we observe about ourselves through introspection and about the external world. That it is less problematic when it comes to understanding biblical anthropology is, of course, a huge bonus for the Christian theist.

Another common misconception is that advances in neuroscience have undermined the case for the soul, or that future progress in neuroscience will close any explanatory gaps that remain. This isn’t the case. Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.

This concludes Part I of a two-part series. In my next post, I will offer examples of the problems faced by physicalism and give reasons why the soul hypothesis is a superior option for explaining  observable reality.

Christianity and Violent Self-Defense

swordThe issue of Christian ethics and the use of violence in self-defense has been hotly debated. The recent surge of hostility against Christians, including beheadings, church bombings, etc. has led me to more deeply examine the questions: Is it morally permissible for Christians to use violence to protect themselves and others when faced with an imminently fatal situation? Does Scripture have anything to say about this issue one way or the other, or are we left to extrapolate our ethic–as best we can–from examples set by biblical figures? Here I will argue that there are contexts in which violent defense is completely justified and supported by Scripture. Some preliminary discussion is in order.

First, it should be emphasized that Christians are called to love our enemies:

But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Jesus, in Luke 6:27-28)

Furthermore, Christians are instructed to be peacemakers:

Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. (Jesus, in Matthew 5:9) 

The obvious conclusion from these passages is that we should go to the greatest length possible to avoid violence and achieve peace with our fellow man. Insult, robbery, or minor physical aggression are not justifications for retaliation, including the attempt to physically harm another human being:

If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks from you, and from one who takes away your things, don’t ask for them back.(Jesus, in Luke 6:29-30 ) 

Often, Christians who advocate for pacifism at all costs will often misuse Luke 6:29 (above) in making their case. Note that this verse says nothing about what we should do in a life-threatening situation, therefore it cannot be cited as support for avoiding violent self-defense. 

Another common argument employs the “Jesus example.” In the Gospel of John, we find an armed mob, led by Judas, arriving to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus miraculously heals Malchus and says to Simon Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). There are two important things to note here: The High Priest’s mob was heavily armed, but Jesus’ life was not in immediate danger. The mob had not come to kill Him, only to arrest him. But far more importantly, this situation was wholly unique to the Messiah–He was acting in direct obedience, doing what was required of Him for the salvation of mankind. In parallel fashion, Jesus subsequently endured merciless scourging and Roman crucifixion.

Martyrs throughout Scripture are sometimes upheld as examples for us to follow in the event that our very life is demanded by fellow men as a consequence of our Christian faith. I believe this, too, is a flawed argument. The account of Stephen’s martyrdom, for instance, doesn’t support the idea that we should calmly submit when our life is threatened. Before his stoning began, God gave Stephen a vision of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was another unique situation, one in which God was directly communicating with Stephen, showing him that his appointed time of departure was near. Nothing in the passage indicates whether or not Stephen tried to defend himself during the stoning, though he certainly demonstrated bravery, forgiveness, and dignity at the end. The account of James’ martyrdom isn’t detailed, it simply says that King Herod had him killed with the sword (Acts 12:2). But nevertheless, the issue of martyrdom is unique and must be carefully distinguished from other cases where violent self defense is necessary.

So, what case can be made for the morally-permissible use of violence in self-defense or the defense of the vulnerable (someone who is unable to defend themselves)? The fact that human life is sacred can be easily supported by Scripture. Thus, its preservation is of the utmost importance. If an attempt is made on your life or the life of your child, and your only course of protection is to deter the attacker in a manner that could be fatal to said attacker, doing so is not only morally permissible, it is a moral duty. Though human lives are equally valuable, situations arise in which innocent life necessarily trumps that of the one attempting to wrongly take life. It should be noted, however, that this is completely different from actions of retaliatory violence.

Besides the sanctity of life, is there a more direct endorsement of violent defense of life in Scripture? Yes, and it came from the mouth of Jesus, no less. Before he was arrested, He had a serious conversation with his disciples in which He prepared them, mentally and practically, for the days to come. Things were about to change for all of them on a cosmic scale, and tremendous danger would dog their footsteps for the rest of their lives. Jesus instructs them:

But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. (Luke 22:36)

 I don’t believe there’s any other way to interpret this statement; Jesus knew they should be equipped with weapons of self-defense as they faced the looming persecution.

My conclusion is that violence is to be avoided when at all possible, but not at all costs. Scripture clearly supports the defense of human life “by the sword.”  In our day, most of us don’t walk around with a sword strapped to ourselves (now that would be incredibly cool), so you’re probably thinking about modern weapons. Without getting into the numerous complexities of responsible firearm legislation, I will simply say that I believe the right to bear arms for the purpose of defense is, in essence, the right to be able to preserve human life under the worst of circumstances. 

John Locke’s Argument for the Existence of God

(The famous 17th century English philosopher, not the bald guy on the Island.)

LockeJohn Locke (1632-1704) is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, discusses the limits of human knowledge in relation to a wide range of topics. In Chapter 10 of Book 4, he offers an argument for the existence of God that reminded me of the debt contemporary apologetics owes to great thinkers of the Western Tradition.

Following Descartes, Locke declares that nothing is more certain than that we ourselves exist. To doubt that we exist is to affirm that a doubter exists! Remember Decartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am”). Locke argues that from the fact of our own existence, we can demonstrate the existence of God. This is how he proceeds:

In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles….If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

In other words, nothing can’t produce anything–from nothing, nothing comes. All things that have come into being must be traced back to a source that has existed from eternity (if the dreaded infinite regress is to be avoided). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is roughly the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which states: Anything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence.

Locke goes on to explain how he believes we can deduce some of the attributes of this first cause of all being:

Next, it is evident, that what had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too. All the powers it has must be owing to and received from the same source. This eternal source, then, of all being must also be the source and original of all power; and so this eternal Being must also be the most powerful.

He is saying that because we have some powers (abilities), our source must have powers, even greater than our own.

The final leg of his argument is what I find most interesting and relevant to the current project of apologetics. Men, he says, find themselves to be knowing, rational creatures, and from this fact we should infer that an intelligent being is our source. To materialists who would claim that there was a time in cosmic history when “no being had any knowledge,” he responds:

I reply, that then it was impossible there should ever have been any knowledge: it being as impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones. For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should put into itself greater angles than two right ones.

If, nevertheless, any one should be found so senselessly arrogant, as to suppose man alone knowing and wise, but yet the product of mere ignorance and chance; and that all the rest of the universe acted only by that blind haphazard; I shall leave with him that very rational and emphatical rebuke of Tully, to be considered at his leisure: “What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing: Or that those things, which with the utmost stretch of his reason he can scarce comprehend, should be moved and managed without any reason at all?”

(“Sillily,” as in: absurdly.) Just as it is impossible for the interior angles of a triangle to exceed a sum of 180 degrees (two right angles–yay, geometry!), so it is impossible for perception and knowledge to result from blind chance acting upon matter.

Arguments related to human reason, since Locke, have become more sophisticated, but at their root is this very idea, that it is nonsensical to propose intelligence ever developing from any non-intelligent source.

For further reading on related (and quite powerful) arguments, I recommend (in order of increasing difficulty): C.S. Lewis’ Miracles, Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, and Dr. Angus Menuge’s Agents Under Fire.


The Hidden Toxicity of Bible-Belt Suburbia

I live in what is arguably the most conservative state in the nation, in a conservative suburb of a large city. Several churches in my town (and the greater metropolitan area) are stereo-typically mega–with membership numbering in the thousands to the tens of thousands. With the exception of the Starbucks parking lots and the annual homeschool convention, I rarely see anti-religion bumper stickers or humanist demonstrators picketing something or other that has offended their brain chemicals. The community is considered a highly desirable area for Christian families looking for a safe, friendly place to live life. The demographic leans sharply towards well-educated professionals: dentists, surgeons, oil chemists, college faculty, and attorneys make up a good fraction of the populace. I’d venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are Christians. It feels insulated and almost idyllic…maybe not quite Stepford Wives, but I’ve heard it compared to that! However, in my years of living here, I’ve come to see that in one important respect, Bible-belt suburbia can be

A worldview that goes largely unchallenged is rarely fortified, and the world then suffers. When you go through life surrounded by like-minded people, particularly when your entire social group consists of fellow church members, there’s likely no sense of urgency to equip yourself to correctly articulate Christian doctrine and defend its truth claims. Unfortunately, I have the common experience of seeing Christ-loving men and women forsake the requisite training because of not having “enough space in life right now.” Often, a myriad of sports practices, music lessons, social events, and self-help “Bible studies” take priority over reading even a few challenging, instructive books throughout the year. They’ve fallen for the Christianized version of the American Dream.

This state of affairs makes me want to shout from the rooftop: “Why on earth are we here?!” I haven’t resorted to that, because I fear I already know the answer I would get: “We’re here to share the love of Jesus!” Well, yes, of course we are, but WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Jesus didn’t travel the countryside with the mission of making people feel good about themselves; He wasn’t some hippie of antiquity just “spreading the love” to gain followers; He was a Radical Truth Teller! He didn’t sequester himself within a bubble of comrades, being careful never to offend anyone on the outside. He purposefully challenged even the greatest political powers of his day in the name of Truth. He was gentle and loving but unafraid and uncompromising.

One of the main underlying problems, I think, is that Christians are much too worried about being liked by the rest of the world. Terror is struck in their hearts by the word “intolerance.” So, many simply go around “doing good” in order to “show the love of Jesus.” But we’re kidding ourselves if we think such actions are unique to Christians. There are plenty of secular philanthropic organizations out there, extending the same kindness and generosity to people in need. In other words, belief in Christ isn’t a requisite for demonstrating a Christ-like love. So—-

WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN DISTINCTIVE? Alongside of a Christ-like attitude of grace and love, we alone are able to offer ultimate Truth. In this era of religious pluralism, moral relativism, and scientism, a great and growing need we must be able to meet is intellectual in nature. Sure, there are always going to be people whose hearts are touched by emotional and material kindnesses, but what about those who are in desperate need of rational answers to the deepest questions of existence? Showing the love of Christ to these souls involves mental sweat on our part, not a gift basket and a churchy platitude.

And this is why I think Bible-Belt Suburbia can be toxic; the Christian faith is rarely challenged, thus Christians feel no pressing need to equip themselves to be an intelligent voice in the face of philosophical opposition. When challenges eventually arise, from extended family members, coworkers, or perhaps our own college-age children, a major opportunity to carry out the Great Commission (our raison d’etre) is laid before us. It’s [spiritual] fight or flight.

Let’s be armed and ready to love God and others with our minds.