The story is told of two high-level mathematicians who were heatedly arguing about an equation scrawled over a huge blackboard in a classroom. The door was open, and a chemist poked his head in remarking: “I don’t know what the fuss is all about. Anyone can see that what you have here is chalk.”
Sometimes there’s more to reality than what meets the eye. Sometimes there are deeper truths to consider. That’s true when it comes to thought.
Have you ever thought about thought? I mean really thought about it.
Thought is something that we do every day. (At least, most days.) But we’re so used to it that we hardly ever give thought to thought. Thought, however, gives powerful witness to a deeper reality beyond the physical.
What is thought?
Ask a neurologist, and you might get a highly detailed description of how neurons release brain chemicals that trigger electrical signals in neighboring neurons. Those electrical signals cascade like a wave to thousands of other neurons, which leads to thought formation.1
Here’s what I think.
Suppose we could exhaustively describe scientifically all that’s going on in a brain when a mother hears her child coo or a mathematician works out a problem or a musician plays a concerto. If we could do that, have we exhaustively described the thoughts of each person?
I think not.
There is an inside experience of each of the aforementioned persons that is private and personal. Philosophers call it qualia. And most of us know intuitively that there’s something more to thought than a simple physical description of it according to electro-chemical reactions.
Think of it.
Take God out of the picture. Let’s follow John Lennon’s advice that he expresses in his song Imagine: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky.” Go ahead and imagine that.
In Lennon’s depiction of reality, only natural causes produce all effects. There’s nothing else. Remember? “Above us only sky.”
The problem with this viewpoint, no matter how creatively it’s expressed, is that nature is rigidly deterministic. Water doesn’t choose to freeze at 32º Fahrenheit. It just does so when conditions are right. There’s no deliberation. It just follows natural law.
Now, consider the implications of this if thought is simply a product of brain chemistry.
Without an immaterial soul, your every thought can be traced back to its true origin—some physical process at work in your brain. That’s it. The electro-chemical conditions just happened to be right at that particular moment, and that’s why a specific thought emerged. The materialist philosopher Pierre Cabanis (d. 1808) put it this way: “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.”
What does this mean?
If Lennon, Cabanis, and so many modern atheist thinkers are right, then we possess no free will. Atheist neurobiologist, Sam Harris puts it this way: “How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?”
There’s a big problem with this.
Without free will, no one is morally praiseworthy or culpable. All persons, to reference the atheist Richard Dawkins, are simply dancing to their DNA. That’s true for Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa. And if we’re just dancing to our DNA, then saying one person is good and another is evil is simply a label that we assign based on our preferences. “Boo, Hitler!” “Yay, Mother Teresa!”
But wait. There’s more.
If the brain is secreting thought as the liver secretes bile, then rationality is simply an illusion. The real reason any atheist believes what he does is because his brain chemistry works a particular way. The same would be true of Christians.
What, then, would be the point of arguing for the rationality of one viewpoint over another? Every point-of-view is simply the deliverance of brain chemistry. And every argument in defense of any point-of-view would also be spawned by brain chemistry. Nothing else.
If, then, I became convinced by any of your arguments supporting atheism, it simply would be due to my brain chemistry, not because your arguments were somehow more rational. Rationality cannot exist if above us only sky.
Alice, we’ve stepped through the looking glass. And things get curiouser and curiouser.
Not only does Lennon’s depiction of reality destroy morality and rationality, but it also consigns human creativity to the ash heap.
I think that Lennon’s song is a product of artistic genius. (Maybe not pure genius but genius nonetheless.) I strongly disagree with the point-of-view that Lennon espouses in his song. However, it’s true genius the way that he marries his message with melody.
Ironically, if Lennon is correct and “above us only sky,” then Imagine is not a work of true genius, and Lennon should get little credit for his song. Rather all the praise should go to the inanimate molecules firing his brain. Nothing more.
Without some version of what philosophers call substance dualism—where both mind (soul) and matter (brain) truly exist—we’re left with a very bleak picture of reality. The love that I have for my wife and children is mere chemistry. The freedom that I have to choose to help or harm others is mere illusion. And the reasons for all my beliefs are, at bottom, irrational.
I’m not ready to make this leap into the abyss. Others have, but not me.
For me, the existence of the human soul (mind) holds greater explanatory power for the commonsense notions of morality, free will, and creativity. Reductionistic philosophies are wholly inadequate. While I don’t pretend to know precisely how mind and brain interact, I do know this: There’s a lot more going on there than just chalk, and that opens the door to the deeper truths of the spirit.
Pastor, Life Coach
Pastor Kerry has been ministering in churches since 1976. He has a wealth of ministry experience in both the local church and working with mission agencies.
Kerry is married to Janice and they have three adult children.