Life aand Living Forms Present a Problem for Materialism but not for Biblical Theism

Two Essays

 In June 2015, the Royal Institute of Philosophy and Cambridge University Press announced their 2015 Philosophy Essay Prize. The topic for the 2015 essay competition was:

 ‘Do Life and Living Forms present a problem for materialism?’

Old style vitalism, attributing an internal animating substance or force to living things gave way to the idea that life may yet be a property over and above physical and chemical ones. Subsequent to that it was widely thought that life is an organisational or functional feature of bodies instantiated by their physical properties. With ongoing debates about analogous issues relating to mind (especially consciousness and intentionality) still running, and renewed interest in anti-reductionist interpretations of emergence and of teleological description and explanation the question is posed: do life forms present a problem for materialism? 

 

What follows are two essays that are adapted from my original competition essay submission in September 2015.

The first is a stand-alone essay adapted from my original essay that just addresses “Materialism.”

The second is a stand-alone essay adapted from my original essay that just addresses “Biblical Theism.” (Page 11)

 

 

 Do Life And Living Forms Present a Problem for Materialism?

 

Abstract

An analysis is made of how well materialism explains life and living forms; the analysis reveals serious problems for materialism’s explanations. Science is used to test the materialist explanations for the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness. All four fail the test of science.

 

Introduction

The fact this question is even asked demonstrates that materialism has problems explaining life and living forms. Therefore, why is it today so many highly educated people accept a materialist explanation? The idea that ‘physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter’[1] defies common sense. And, it will be demonstrated that materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science. The materialist is ultimately left with only philosophical speculations, not scientific explanations.

The first problem is the materialist is trapped by his worldview.  As Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton observed over a hundred years ago, ‘The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.’[2]

This is admitted by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin. In a review of Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he observed:

‘Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’[3]

Thus, for the trapped materialist, nothing can present a true problem for materialism, not life, not living forms – nothing. Having rejected the ‘Divine Foot in the door’, the materialist speculates there must still be an explanation out there – somewhere; he just concludes it has not been found yet. As we will see, there is a good chance his speculations are wrong. Life and living forms require explanations, not speculations.

The second problem the materialist faces is that he must rely on a religious conviction to develop scientific thought. James Hannam, in God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009), clearly documents the consensus view of historians of science that the religious conviction God created nature led to the development of the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages. He then shows how this led to the achievement of modern science. Hannam also describes how the Christian theologians of the Middle Ages, whom he refers to as ‘God’s philosophers’, made the crucial distinctions about how God uses secondary causes or natural laws to affect his will, which encouraged the study of nature. Without such distinctions theology becomes fatalistic and no science ensues. Rodney Stark, in his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery, concurs. He concludes his section on science with two points: ‘First, science arose only once in history – in medieval Europe. Second, science could only arise in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator.’[4] Interestingly, one does not abandon science when one accepts biblical theism; one invents it.

 

Testing Materialism

But, the most important problem facing materialism is that it fails the test of science. In the opening episode of the television documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, (2014) astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson presents a clear and powerful definition of science. He explains that science is just a ‘…simple set of rules:

  • Test ideas by experiment and observation,
  • Build on those ideas that pass the test,
  • Reject the ones that fail,
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and
  • Question everything.’

We will now test the materialist ideas. All these ideas will be tested by observation as they are not testable by experiment.

 

                     The Origin of the Universe

What about the idea that our universe popped into existence out of nothing? It is not a problem for Lawrence M. Krauss, cosmologist and author of A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather than Nothing (2011). In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (September 8, 2010) discussing some of physicist Stephen Hawking’s speculations, he wrote:

‘As a scientist, I have never quite understood the conviction, at the basis of essentially all the world’s religions, that creation requires a creator. Every day beautiful and miraculous objects suddenly appear, from snowflakes on a cold winter morning to rainbows after a late afternoon summer shower.

Yet no one but the most ardent fundamentalists would suggest that every such object is painstakingly and purposefully created by divine intelligence. In fact, we revel in our ability to explain how snowflakes and rainbows can spontaneously appear based on the simple, elegant laws of physics.

So if we can explain a raindrop, why can’t we explain a universe? Mr. Hawking based his argument on the possible existence of extra dimensions – and perhaps an infinite number of universes, which would indeed make the spontaneous appearance of a universe like ours seem almost trivial.’[5]

 

Krauss makes it seem so simple, but his understanding of nothing is extremely weak. Over three hundred years ago, American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, as a teenager, described the task we must go through if we truly wish to describe perfect nothing:

‘When we go about to form an idea of perfect nothing we must shut out all these things; we must shut out of our minds both space that has something in it, and space that has nothing in it. We must not allow ourselves to think of the least part of space, never so small. Nor must we suffer our thoughts to take sanctuary in a mathematical point. When we go to expel body out of our thoughts, we must cease not to leave empty space in the room of it; and when we go to expel emptiness from our thoughts, we must not think to squeeze it out by anything close, hard, and solid, but we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of; and not till then shall we get a complete idea of nothing.’[6]

You will not get ‘an infinite number of universes’ out of what ‘sleeping rocks dream of’. When nothing is ‘perfect nothing’, we can conclude that the materialist idea that the universe has popped into existence out of nothing has failed the test.

 

The Origin of Plant Life

What is the materialist explanation for the origin of plant life? Today, we do not observe scientists sprouting new life forms in a test tube, and we certainly do not see new life forms spontaneously self-assembling themselves into existence in nature. All we do see is modification of existing life forms in nature or the lab. Is it possible that a new life form could come into existence by itself? The materialist claims this must have happened; the problem is he has no idea how. It would seem that brilliant scientists working in a lab stand a better chance than unguided natural processes, even operating over immense periods of time. The facts are, as of today, there are only speculations for how this could have happened.

Is it possible someday scientists could create a brand new life form in their lab? Maybe. Would this then mean plants, as living forms, do not present a problem for materialism? No. The materialist still has to get something from nothing to work with and he still needs a scientist in the lab. Plant life, though, is probably as close as it will get for life not presenting a problem for materialism.

What about the idea that evolution is bringing forth new life forms from previous life forms? According to the materialist, the unguided natural processes of evolution have done what an intelligent scientist in his lab has not done. Yet, since evolution still requires some life form already in existence, it does not save the materialist position. Until the naturalistic origin of life is demonstrated, evolution is a moot point. Thus, in explaining the origin of plants, materialism has failed the test.

 

The Origin of Creature Life

Concerning the origin of creature life materialism runs into even greater problems. The materialist has not and probably will not ever make a single observation of a creature dying and coming back to life. Once a creature has died it cannot be resuscitated. This is so obvious it does not even seem to be profound, but it is. Every single creature that has ever lived is either still alive or dead. Is it not easier to imagine that if you take a fish the instant it dies, you have a better opportunity of resuscitating it than you do making a fish from scratch? At the moment of death you would have little to no material disintegration of its organs and body. Or, imagine getting to this point in a lab and making an exact physical copy of a fish, you still need to bring it to life. The ‘breath of life’ is clearly a problem for materialism. In explaining the origin of creature life, materialism has failed the test.

Only a non-materialist will make the claim that someone has been resurrected from the dead.

 

            The Origin of Human Consciousness

 What about the materialist idea that human consciousness arose from purely naturalistic processes. We find no observations for this idea. Jerry Fodor, Professor of Philosophy and cognitive scientist, writes ‘Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.’[7] Nobel Prize winning biologist George Wald stated ‘Consciousness seems to me to be wholly impervious to science. It does not lie as an indigestible element within science, but just the opposite: Science is the highly digestible element within consciousness….’[8]  It also seems highly improbable the editors of Philosophy are only a collection of molecules that enjoy having a conversation. Thus, this idea has failed the test.

 

Conclusion

We have now scientifically tested materialism by making observations of the world around us. From what we have seen, do life and living forms present a problem for materialism? Yes. We do not see the possibility of anything coming into existence from perfect nothing; we do not see living forms spontaneously popping into existence; we do not see life as living creatures coming back to life, much less starting life; and, we do not see any explanations for human consciousness. Clearly, if materialism were to be true, we should see some evidence of these things happening; we do not. In every instance materialism fails the test of science.

Therefore, we should reject materialism as a rational scientific explanation for life and living forms. As Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

 

 

Do Life And Living Forms Present a Problem for Biblical Theism?

 

Abstract

An analysis is made of how well biblical theism and the Genesis creation account explain life and living forms; the analysis reveals strong support for the biblical explanations. The analysis is organized around the first three uses of the Hebrew word bara in the first chapter of Genesis – where it is translated as ‘created’, and means ‘to create out of nothing’. Science is then used to test the biblical explanations for the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness. All four of the biblical explanations pass the test of science.

 

Introduction

Many people assume that biblical explanations have problems explaining life and living forms. Why is it today so many highly educated people accept a materialist explanation but reject a biblical explanation? Likely, it is because they believe the biblical explanation is an ancient myth, or that it has already been examined and found wanting. And, they truly fear that if they invoke God as a Creator, it would mean they would have to abandon reason and science.

But, the Bible has an excellent historical record in regard to science. James Hannam, in God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009), clearly documents the consensus view of historians of science that the religious conviction God created nature led to the development of the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages. He then shows how this led to the achievement of modern science. Hannam also describes how the Christian theologians of the Middle Ages, whom he refers to as ‘God’s philosophers’, made the crucial distinctions about how God uses secondary causes or natural laws to affect his will, which encouraged the study of nature. Without such distinctions theology becomes fatalistic and no science ensues. Rodney Stark, in his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery, concurs. He concludes his section on science with two points: ‘First, science arose only once in history – in medieval Europe. Second, science could only arise in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator.’[9] Interestingly, one does not abandon science when one accepts biblical theism; one invents it.

Given the historical fruit of biblical ideas, we will now examine what the Bible actually says about life and living forms, and see if it is found wanting or not. We do not need an extensive study of the scriptures; all we need to do is examine its first chapter. The Bible does not leave us in suspense about such important questions.

 

Created Out of Nothing

For our purpose, we will focus on the first three uses of the Hebrew word bara (בָּרָא, ḇârâ’) in the first chapter of Genesis. The English translations of the Hebrew text carefully translate the word bara as ‘created’; in contrast, the Hebrew word asa (עָשָׂה, ‘âśâ) is used to denote ‘made’. In the context of Genesis 1, the Hebrew word bara means ‘to create out of nothing’, or more clearly ‘to call into existence that which had no existence’. This analysis assumes these first three uses of bara represent special one-time creative events. Once these creations come into existence, they become available for God’s continued use. Therefore, the word asa, which means to ‘assemble from things which already exist’, is used.

Any analysis of Genesis 1 must account for the distinct use of these words.  The first three uses of the word ‘created’ are found in Genesis 1:1, 1:21, and 1:27, that is, on the first, the fifth, and the sixth day.  This usage is precise. What did God create out of nothing on the first day, the fifth day, and the sixth day?  The answer, simply stated, is: ‘the cosmos’, ‘the breath of life’, and ‘the image of God’.

 

The Universe

‘In the beginning God created (1st bara) the heavens and the earth.’ (Genesis 1:1 English Standard Version) Here we find God creating the cosmos: the space, mass, time universe out of nothing; it had never existed before.  On day two, we find God separating the waters from the waters and making (asa) an expanse; on day three, we find God letting the dry land appear and the plants bearing (asa) fruit; and on day four, we find God making (asa) the sun, moon and stars.  Note, on days two, three, and four, God had everything he needed, created out of nothing on the first day, to form, shape and mold what he wanted to accomplish.

 

The Breath of Life

On the fifth day you could say God had a problem; he was unable to make a living fish or bird out of what he had created out of nothing on the first day; all he could do was to make an inanimate fish or inanimate bird.  To make a living breathing creature, he had to create something brand new out of nothing – ‘the breath of life’; it had never existed before.  ‘So God created (2nd bara) the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.’ (Genesis 1:21) What is ‘the breath of life’?  It is simply the life a creature possesses.  Imagine a fish out of water and flapping around on the shore.  In a short while, it dies; it is at this instant it loses its ‘breath of life’.

 

The Image of God

 On day six, God makes all the land creatures.  As on the second, third and fourth days, we find God already had everything he needed, created out of nothing on days one and five, to make (asa) the land creatures. However, to make a man, he had to create something else brand new out of nothing – ‘the image of God’; it had never existed before.  ‘So God created (3rd bara) man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27) Being created in the image of God is how the Bible distinguishes man from all the other creatures.

 

Some Observations

 To help clarify what we have learned, let us ask and answer a few questions.

  • What is the essential difference between a rock and a plant? There is no essential difference; while the plant is incredibly more complex, they are both made from what was created by the first bara.
  • What is the essential difference between a fish and a plant? The fish has the breath of life, the second bara.
  • What is the essential difference between a man and a fish? The man has the image of God, the third bara.

 

Interestingly, in the first chapter of the Bible, we find answers to some of our most important philosophical questions. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, states: ‘… so that it need only be noted that no philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself.  Most philosophers had the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself.’[10] Even though Chesterton is not commenting on the usage of bara in the Genesis account, his description of these three mysteries fits them perfectly. One does not abandon reason when one accepts biblical theism, one embraces it.

Note also, the Bible, with its use of the word bara, makes a distinction between plant life and creature life; plant life arose from the first bara while creature life needed the second. If we equate ‘living forms’ with plants, and ‘life’ with the creature life, we find we have a perfect fit with the question under investigation.

 

Testing Biblical Theism

Now that we have examined the biblical creation account and have become familiar with the special distinctions Genesis 1 makes about plant life, creature life and human life, let us look at them through the lens of science.  In the opening episode of the television documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, (2014) astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson presents a clear and powerful definition of science. He explains that science is just a ‘…simple set of rules:

  • Test ideas by experiment and observation,
  • Build on those ideas that pass the test,
  • Reject the ones that fail,
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and
  • Question everything.’

 

The Origin of the Universe

We will now test the ideas of Genesis 1. All these ideas will be tested by observation as they are not testable by experiment. What about the biblical idea that ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’? (Genesis 1:1) When we consider everything that had a beginning is always observed to have a cause and since we now know the universe had a beginning, simple logic tells us the universe must have had a cause. And, since the qualities possessed by this cause describe the God of the Bible – spaceless, massless, timeless, uncaused, willful, and all-powerful – we find the biblical idea has passed the test.

 

The Origin of Plant Life

What about the origin of plants as living forms? According to the Bible, on day three God made the plants. ‘And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so.’ (Genesis 1:11) What do we observe in the world around us?  We see amazing complexity of myriads of plants that replicate themselves after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications. This bothered Charles Darwin. He pondered why they were not ‘blended together’.

‘As according to the theory of natural selection an interminable number of intermediate forms must have existed, linking together all the species in each group by gradations as fine as are our existing varieties, it may be asked, Why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all organic beings blended together in an inextricable chaos?’[11]

The ‘interminable number of…linking forms’ we do not see puzzled Darwin but the ‘according to their kind’ vegetation we do see supports the Genesis account. The biblical idea has passed the test.

 

The Origin of Creature Life

Let us now consider the vastly more complex issue of creature life. Again, exactly like the plants, the Genesis description of fish and birds fits what we observe in the world around us. We see myriads of creatures that replicate themselves after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we see none of Darwin’s ‘inextricable chaos.’ Observations we make of creature life support what the Bible says. It has passed the test.

 

The Origin of Human Consciousness

Let us now test the biblical idea that man is ‘created in the image of God.’ Man is unique, but so are other creatures. However, as Chesterton observed, ‘It is customary to insist that man resembles the other creatures. Yes; and that very resemblance he alone can see. The fish does not trace the fishbone pattern in the fowls of the air; or the elephant and the emu compare skeletons.’[12] We are of a completely different quality than all other creatures. When we identify this uniqueness as the ‘image of God’, this idea has passed the test.

 

Conclusion

We have now scientifically tested biblical theism and the Genesis creation account by making observations of the world around us. From what we have seen, do life and living forms present a problem for biblical theism? No, they make an excellent fit.

We see a universe that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures.  All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

 

Author

Don McLeroy

donmcleroy@gmail.com

1-979-255-2538

4343 Carter Creek Parkway Suite 105

Bryan, Texas 77802

Dentist, Practicing Dentistry in Bryan, Texas 1978 – present

Former Chair, Texas State Board of Education

 

Education

 

B.S. Electrical Engineering

Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, 1969

Doctor of Dental Surgery

University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, 1978

 

Publications

  • ‘To Achieve Equity: Rediscover the Lost Ingredient – Knowledge’, Texas Lyceum Journal November 30, 2005
  • ‘Enlisting in the culture war’, Austin American-Statesman, March 25, 2009
  • ‘Opposing view on education: Teach founding principles’, USA Today, April 10, 2010
  • ‘The State Board of Education’s standards should make Texans proud’, Austin American-Statesman, December 31, 2010
  • ‘Texas’ evolution teaching meets science standards’, Austin American-Statesman, February 2, 2010
  • ‘Two Views: Keep requiring evolutionary explanations’ Austin American-Statesman, January 30, 2017

 

[1] Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/materialism

[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London, John Lane Company, 1909), 41

[3] Richard Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons’, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, 10

[4] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery, (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003) 197

[5] Lawrence Krauss, ‘Our Spontaneous Universe: I have never quite understood the conviction that creation requires a creator’ (Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2010)

[6] Jonathan Edwards [1721], ‘Of Being’, Scientific and Philosophical Writings (WJE Online Vol. 6) , Ed. Wallace E. Anderson

[7] Jerry Fodor, ‘The Big Idea: Can There be a Science of the Mind?’ (Times Literary Supplement, July 3, 1992) 5

[8]George Wald, ‘Life and Mind in the Universe’ (International  Journal of Quantum Chemistry, April 6, 2008) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/qua.560260703/abstract

[9] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery, (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003) 197

[10] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (1925, reprint Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995), 26

[11] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th Edition, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882), 407

[12] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (1925, reprint Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993), 263

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2 Responses to Life aand Living Forms Present a Problem for Materialism but not for Biblical Theism

  1. Don Johnson says:

    It’s been a long time Don McLeroy, but I commend you on these very fine essays. Concise, complete, very informative and quite persuasive.

    I will pass them on to those I can touch.

    Best regards,
    Don Johnson

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Reblogged this on A Yearning for Publius and commented:
    Please read these very fine two essays. Concise, complete, very informative and quite persuasive.

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